Just Off for a Walk by Stephen Reynolds

Perhaps you’re planning a trip to the United Kingdom in your future, and looking for a chance to explore the scenic countryside. You’ve seen pictures of the majestic coastline in travel guides and thought that maybe you would like to take in some hiking along the sandstone and limestone cliffs that overlook the sea. Enter Stephen Reynolds.

What happens when a 37-year-old office worker, who exercises marginally less than the average cheese sandwich, decides to walk 630 miles of challenging coastline in one go? Will he go on an epic voyage of self-discovery. . . or just get really knackered? Find out the answers to these important questions, and many more, by joining Reynolds on a grand adventure around the 630-mile South West Coast Trail that circumnavigates the, yes, southwestern corner of England.

Reynolds details his experiences in the new book Just Off for a Walk, a self-published journal of his two month thru hiking adventure. What we have come to know as hiking in the States, is simply called walking in the UK, and it is a hobby that has been around in that ancient country for centuries. The Brits know how to build trails that stand the test of time.

Disclosure: I was contacted by Stephen Reynolds with an offer to receive his book. It was provided at no cost to me. My only responsibility was an agreement to complete this review. I was not pressured in any way to make a positive endorsement.


An Introduction


I discovered immediately upon turning the first pages that Stephen Reynolds has an enjoyable writing style. His self-deprecating wit had me saying to myself, yep, been there, done that. Reynolds’ humor throughout the book makes this an easy read, one filled with anecdotes of his encounters with other walkers, with wildlife, and the rough and tumble English coast.

In fact, I used Google Maps and Google Earth to follow along with his walk. As I was reading, I had the map of the English coast up on my computer so I could see the coves, and the bays, and the villages he encountered along the way. When Reynolds described especially intriguing locations, I would switch to Google Earth for a zoom in, and a look for myself.

For Reynolds, walking the South West Coast Path was an answer to insomnia. He discovered one day that taking a long walk seemed to help him sleep better that night.

I was not sleeping because I was worried about not sleeping, which was worrying. A never-ending cycle of deafening silences and high-speed stillness. I make a snap decision to go for a walk in the countryside. Maybe some fresh air in the August sunshine will be of some help. [It…] ended up changing everything. I discovered by accident that a long walk is far and away the best medicine for insomnia. Cleaning out the old noggin and injecting a slice of much needed physical exertion into my otherwise sloth-like existence.

After months and months of not sleeping, he hatched an idea of months and months of walking. Not one to mess around with a weekend walking and camping excursion Reynolds chose the South West Coast Trail.

The South West Coast Path is the big daddy of the National Trails in the UK. Over 600 miles in length and including some of the toughest terrain these shores have to offer. In other words, the obvious choice for a pasty podge-face pushing forty with orienteering skills that […would qualify for a Darwin Award].

To his credit, Reynolds planned well. He prepared a budget. He purchased guidebooks. He mapped out daily distances to travel, and resupply points. He considered his nourishment requirements.

As part of my meticulous planning for the trip, I’d researched what food supplies I would need with painstaking precision. I subsequently disregarded these findings however and plumped instead for a diet exclusively made up of salami, Mars Bars, and individually wrapped mini cheeses.


Beginning the Journey of a Lifetime


It seems to be a theme throughout books about long-distance hiking, one that Reynolds also had to deal with from day one: a backpack that is simply too big, and too heavy. He wrestled with his “Monster” for days, even pondering opportunities to ditch his tent and sleeping bag. In the end, though, he finished with everything intact.

His plan involved staying in hostels, in B&B’s, the occasional hotel for a soothing bath, and his trusty canvas tent. He argued with that tent every time he used it. The tent seemed to grow overnight as he slept, as it would never fit back in its carry bag the next morning. He didn’t camp much, but he successfully carried his tent with him throughout. He even offered this bit of good advice to those new to tent camping:

I set up my tent in a picturesque spot under an oak tree by a flowing river. This successfully ensures I need the loo every twenty minutes throughout the night.

Like many who have gone before, for the first few days Reynolds wrestles with his decision. Thru hiking is hard, tedious work. All the ups and downs of the British coast are exhausting. It is very tiring and sweaty. Everything is sore. You stink. You hurt. You wonder whose great idea this was anyway.

As I begin to get close to the town of Ilfracombe, my darkening mood is realised by a road sign in the distance that reads “Welcome to Hell.” I approach it somewhat apprehensively to discover it actually reads “Welcome to Hele Bay,” but has been tampered with and partially obscured by the overgrown roadside flora.

After the first few days, though, Reynolds begins to get into his surroundings. He takes more time to study the scenery rather than just beating in miles. He marvels at the beauty of the English coast and countryside and begins to realize that this wasn’t such a bad decision after all.

No sooner have I turned the corner at Morte Point when the rocky, rugged cliffs are replaced by a vast yellow sandy beach. Littered with hundreds of surfers, the scene is surreal, almost absurd. The sun is beating down on the sparkling blue sea and I wonder how I’ve gone from North Devon in April to the California sunshine in the space of five minutes.


One of the many beaches along the English Coast by Stephen Reynolds


I thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes shared by Reynolds of those times when things don’t necessarily go as well as one might have liked. In the community we’ve come to recognize these situations as what we call “hiking fiascos.” Take for example this problem he had with his food:

I stop for lunch and make an important culinary decision. It’s time to let the individually wrapped mini cheeses go. Big words I know, but hear me out. They are sweaty. Increasingly so. As I walk gallantly onward through this breathtaking coastline, I do so amidst a potent cloud of smelly cheese. No more.

Lunch was usually on the trail, but most nights Reynolds would enjoy his supper at the myriad of English pubs scattered throughout the many small towns along the way. Well, maybe enjoy isn’t necessarily the right word.

I order the enticingly named Indian Chip Butty… how could I not? When it arrives, it’s not a disappointment; a mountain of chips covered in curry, atop a chunky slice of toasted bread. I feel certain there is a cheese element also, but I’m not able to confirm this amongst the culinary carnage.

Or how about this gem when he discovered that walking day after day after day can actually be hard on the feet:

I remember having a tube of ibuprofen gel in the darkest recesses of my pack. I proceed to cover my sore feet in it, generously layering on about four layers. I notice it’s slightly past the use-by date so I may as well use the entire tube. Minutes later, I’m about halfway up the hill out of Clovelly when my error in judgment becomes apparent. My feet have gone completely numb. I also lose some degree of spatial awareness as the lack of any sensation in my feet leaves me unable to judge where the ground is.

Needless to say, don’t do that. Thank Stephen Reynolds for that valuable tip.

With the bad though, also comes the good. On a few occasions Reynolds would splurge for overnight accommodations:

I wander around the vast hotel room in my fluffy dressing gown, sipping a single malt from the mini bar, whilst perusing the dinner menu. Having decided on the charred leeks and white asparagus with hazelnuts and milk skin, I clap on the lights, switch on the fifty-inch HD flat screen and hop onto the four-poster water bed for a well-earned siesta. People just don’t realize how tough the nomadic lifestyle of the long-distance walker can be.


Encounters Along the Way


Reynolds writes about many of the daily encounters he has with other walkers, and folks who inhabit the many small villages along the coast. One of the great things about the South West Coast Path is the frequency of these hamlets that end short periods of isolation. Unlike some of the world’s other great long distance trails, you never have to be concerned about loneliness.

I briefly contemplate the reactions I’ve had from the many folks I’ve met along the way. It can be said that there is rarely a middle ground. Either they think I’m a total moron for voluntarily walking 630 miles on my own, when there are perfectly good public transport options available. Or they are jealous of the adventure I’m on and wish they could join me. It seems it’s either your idea of heaven or hell.

Twice on the adventure he even ran into celebrities who were out and about on holiday, and couldn’t wait to tell his wife.

I text Tasha [wife] and tell her about my experience mingling with a celebrity on the path. After a minute or so she replies with this text, “Did you ask him to use his shower?” I may live to be a hundred and never understand the complex intricacies of this woman’s mind.

There was also plenty of wildlife, from fox to rabbit, and the occasional deer. Mostly there were sheep, goats, ponies and cattle grazing in the meadows and farmland so common along the route. One day, he had an unusual encounter of the insect persuasion.

I inadvertently commit beetle genocide as they suddenly swarm the ground in front of me in biblical-plague-like quantities. I apologetically wipe the gooey remains of entire families, communities even, from the soles of my boots using a tuft of grass.

Undoubtedly his favorites though, are the seabirds that constantly swoop and hover over the coastal shore. He loves the gulls, the kestrels, and in particular, the buzzards.

I stop to gaze lovingly at a buzzard in flight. The graceful maneuvering of the birds of prey along the coastline has already become one of the stand out highlights of the trip.


Learning About Himself


For those of you who have experience with a long distance hike, especially with a really looonnnggg distance hike, you know all about the boredom that can occasionally set in. Reynolds was certainly not immune. Did you know that long distance walking has contributed many of the great philosophers of our time?

It’s generally thought (by which I mean I’ve decided) that as far as the noble art of thinking is concerned, walkers fit into two distinct categories. The first is the walker who walks to think. The walk is where you sort out all your problems and return to normal life with an action plan at the ready. The second is the walker who walks to not think, whereby the walk is the only place where you are able to switch off, clear your head, and focus purely on the journey. I’m predominantly from the latter camp. It’s concerning me that I may be entering into the spirit of this mind-set a touch too literally and wandering zombie-like around the most beautiful coastline in the world without noticing half of it.

But, just as we may lose our minds on occasion, so too are the times of sharp focus, where we truly notice our surroundings.

The open-air Minack Theater is carved into the rock face and juts triumphantly out from the cliff’s edge. I’m dumbstruck at its spendor, feeling as though I’ve wandered into ancient Rome by mistake. It occurs to me that in the space of just a few hours I’ve seen the very worst and the very best examples of humankind’s effects on this exhilarating coastline. The tacky entertainment complexes of Lands’ End seem of a different world to the architectural triumph of Minack that now caresses my optic senses.


Photo of Minack Theater by Stephen Reynolds


His visual sense wasn’t the only one. His taste buds were represented as well, although his family might not have understood.

I have to tell you that the Commercial Inn in the town of St. Just, Cornwall, Great Britain, serves the best monkfish curry in the entire world. Later that evening I call several loved ones to share this important discovery but, if anything, I’m met with little more than widespread apathy.

The scenery was what would mostly snap him out of the monotonous march, step after step after step. He mentioned that he took 700 photographs along the length of his trip. Some spots really caught his eye.

I snap hundreds of photographs of seals from this secretive vantage point, like a member of the paparazzi clicking away at some unsuspecting celebrities in their swimming costumes on a beach in Majorca. Instead of a telescopic lens however, I have a cheap smartphone. As a result, I have hundreds of pictures of what looks to be distant blurry rocks on a nondescript shoreline. I care not though. I feel as though the world is a pretty wonderful place, all things considered.

And this one:

The spot at St. Loy’s is so secluded and has an almost tropical feel to it, contrasted against the rocky cliffs and still calm ocean. I decide that once I’ve replaced Bill Bryson as the world’s premier travel writer and made my inevitable millions, I will live here.

Reynolds did a good job of keeping his mind occupied when it would drift off into the trudgery. He had another brilliant idea for padding his bank account:

I’ve been composing this masterpiece, mentally, for a week or so now. The premise is simple enough: take a well-known song from the popular music world and change a word or two so that it sounds like it’s about walking. I’ll give you an example. I’ve come up with “Keep strollin’ strollin’ strollin’ strollin'”, you know, like that song that says “Keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin'” by Linford Biscuits or whatever he’s called. It’s a sure-fire money spinner in the unlikely event that this book doesn’t make me my billions. It’s always sensible in life to have a robust backup plan.

Notice in just a matter of days the thousand-fold increase in his presumed fortune.


Coming to an End


Reynolds isn’t all comedian. When the mood strikes him, he can put together a few paragraphs of prose that demonstrate his quality writing ability. Like with anyone who undertakes a lengthy adventure, as the end approaches, we wonder what we may have discovered along the way… about ourselves.

That first sight of the sea has an increasing sense of profoundness with every passing day. A hitherto unrealized weight is lifted the moment my eyes rest upon the seductive waves; be they silent and still, full of fury, or boisterous and playful. There are occasional flashes of neon, jagged lightning on the horizon where sea meets sky. The scene is so staggeringly beautiful I feel as though I might explode. The power and grandeur of nature creates the sensation that I’m at the edge of everything that has ever been; the very beginning or the very end of time, of life, of all.


Lighthouse along English Coast by Stephen Reynolds


Or this passage that is just as much about life as it is walking the path:

It dawns on me that when I started the walk I was forever looking backwards, amazed at how far I’d travelled, but as the trip goes on it’s these forward vistas that bring me the most joy. This is especially true as I enter the final third of the journey, as it provides a welcome reminder that there is still so much to look forward to.

On the final days of his walk, Reynolds is both sad to see it end (he even considers turning around and doing a yoyo), and happy for what comes next.

This incredible adventure is all but at an end, and I suppose the reality of that is at last sinking in. I desperately miss Tasha, my family and my friends and will be over the moon to be with them again, but this has been an even more enriching and beautiful experience than I ever could have hoped for. I’ll miss the nomadic freedom, the feeling of being on an endless journey. Life concentrated into its purest and most simple form. Walk, eat, walk, sleep, repeat.

I subconsciously begin muttering a mantra under my breath: This is who I am, this is what I am, this is why I am, my reason and where I belong, I will not go quietly. Passers-by, of whom there are many along this popular and accessible final section, become increasingly alarmed at the leather skinned muddy ne’er-do-well with the oversized backpack audibly chanting and staring out to sea.

Upon crossing the finish line and reuniting with family, Reynolds describes an especially heart-warming moment with his mother. She obviously has worried herself sick for her son’s safety throughout the two months that he was on the South West Coast Path.

My mum, delighted to find me alive and well and not butchered at the hands of a crazed old Cornish fisherman, comments instead on my resemblance to aforementioned crazed old Cornish fisherman.

A perfect ending, to a special tale.


What Did I Think?


Stephen Reynolds

By now you can no doubt tell that I thoroughly enjoyed Just Off for a Walk. Have I mentioned that Stephen Reynolds is just downright funny. Each page is a series of zingers one right after the other just like walking a trail one step after another. He works in finance by trade, but I have a suspicion this won’t be the last book we will see from Stephen Reynolds.

Reynolds describes himself as a 37-year-old office worker, who exercises marginally less than the average cheese sandwich. During his walk around the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Poole he takes in 26,719 steps, 921 stiles, 302 bridges, 91,000 feet of climbing and descending, 1 seal, 0 basking sharks, lots of chips, 1 overweight, over-sized backpack, and single-handedly keeps the population of Slough, Berkshire in business by consuming copious amounts of Mars Bars.

Just Off for a Walk can be had for less than $10 and is self-published by Stephen Reynolds. You can order copies from Amazon for Kindle or in paperback.

Disclosure: I was contacted by Stephen Reynolds with an offer to receive his book. It was provided at no cost to me. My only responsibility was an agreement to complete this review. I was not pressured in any way to make a positive endorsement.


This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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